Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"Lots of Jews, lots of sheep..."

.... Josephus, a Jewish historian contemporary with the Gospels’ authors, writes that on Passover, the population of Jerusalem swelled to more than two million as Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple for the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Ancient pilgrims had to be in the city no later than seven days before the beginning of the feast.

In Gospel traditions about Jesus’ “triumphal entry,” we catch an echo of the excitement and high spirits of the holiday throng. The Passover meal, according to biblical law, had to be eaten in a state of purity. Pilgrims—Jesus among them—streamed into the city to undergo a week-long ritual of purification. Only once that was completed could preparations for the sacred meal begin. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (matzo) would then continue for another week; only thereafter would the city begin to empty once the holiday came to a close.

Lots of Jews. Lots of sheep. Lots of unstructured time, punctuated by bouts of ritual purification, before the holiday actually began. And, in Jesus’ period, one more social ingredient went into the mix: lots of Roman soldiers.

The Galilee, Jesus’ native corner of the Jewish homeland, was an independent Jewish state for all of his lifetime. But Judea, with its capital city of Jerusalem, lay under Roman jurisdiction. Rome didn’t rule from Jerusalem. The “prefect” or governor—in our story, Pilate—was garrisoned with some 3,000 soldiers in the beautiful harbor city of Caesarea. Three times a year, during the Jewish pilgrimage holidays, the prefect and his troops marched up to the capital to help manage the holiday crowds.

Roman troops were in Jerusalem to see and to be seen. They maintained order and kept things moving. And they ensured that no protests erupted, especially on the Temple Mount—for it was during these holidays, wrote Josephus, that “sedition is most likely to break out.” It was in this bustling, bursting space, the beating heart of the city during the great festivals, that Jesus taught about the “kingdom of God” in the week before the feast. Rome’s soldiers, alert to any sign of trouble, would have gazed down at Jesus and his listeners from their stations on the perimeter wall that surrounded the Temple precincts’ sacred space.

The fact that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover—and, according to John’s gospel, to observe many other high holidays as well—means that he was actively engaged in worship at the Temple. This can come as a surprise to some readers of the Gospels, because of the scene where Jesus turns over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple’s Court of the Nations, disrupting the sale of sacrificial birds. Some readers have assumed that, in so doing, Jesus was repudiating the very idea of sacrifice.

But other gospel details point in the opposite direction, depicting a Jesus comfortably at home in the traditions and practices of his people. Jesus wore “fringes” (in Hebrew, tzitzit), the ritual garment meant to remind the wearer of God’s commandments; in one gospel story, a sick woman is cured of her illness by touching them. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes for his followers how they should make offerings at the Temple altar. Jesus also affirms the traditional Jewish belief that the Temple was the place where God dwells. And in all three synoptic gospels, Jesus celebrates the Seder, the ritual Passover meal, with his closest followers. The centerpiece of this meal, the Passover sacrifice, was the lamb itself. There was only one place in town to get one: the Temple.

Finally, one last, nice detail: Mark’s gospel closes off the Seder scene by commenting that the group all “sang hymns.” If you’ve been to a Seder, you know: These first-century Jews finished celebrating the Passover meal by singing the psalms of praise and thanksgiving that today bring to a close the traditional text for the meal. .... (more, almost certainly behind a paywall)

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